Opening the Lens on Three Cutting Edge Documentaries

Riverside Film Festival Set to Screen 'Call Us Ishmael', 'The Big House' and 'Me, the Other'

    icon Oct 18, 2018
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Call Us Ishmael

Moby Dick, the huge white sperm whale: Of course he is a symbol.  Of what? I doubt if even Melville knew exactly. - D.H. Lawrence

Call Us Ishmael is an intimate look at the ageless world obsession with Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick, considered by many academics to be the ‘Great American Novel’.  In this film, historians, artists, philosophers, and fanatics explore the novel’s artistic and cultural legacy and the impact it has had throughout America’s history. 

Filmmaker David Shaerf, takes us on a journey to meet these enthusiasts as they reveal their personal fascination with Captain Ahab and the most famous whale of all time. The film shows us how the novel has affected not only their lives, but also created a community of people who have been brought together by the power of  Melville’s masterwork.

Each and every year, hundreds of people flock to New Bedford, Massachusetts in bleak mid-winter to partake in a celebration like none other. They read this single book out loud over the course of two full days without stopping.  Mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, poets, artists, academics—all of these people have one thing in common: they are obsessed with Moby-Dick.

According to Shaerf, the film took him over seven years to complete. “When I shot the first interview, I was living in a one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, NY. Since then, I moved to Detroit,  started work as a professor at a university, bought a house, got married - it seems like a virtual lifetime since embarking upon this project.”

While Melville’s masterwork has an intimidating reputation, it also has a cult following.  “This is the first film dedicated to meeting the people that keep the legacy of Moby-Dick alive,” states David. “When I first read Moby-Dick I hated it.  Growing up, I never had a favorite book, but I would always revel in telling people how my least favorite book was Moby-Dick”

“So, Call Us Ishmael, I suppose, was birthed from my own distaste for Moby-Dick.  When I picked it up again as a 30 year old I realized how wrong I was: this book is so remarkable. In one moment, I realized why the teenage version of me wouldn’t be into it. With a little bit more life experience under my belt, though, it was like, ‘this book gets me’.”

When asked about the genesis of this project, Shaerf says initially it was very much a hobby. “I had a day job and I felt that an inspection of the cultural and historical legacy of Melville’s masterwork was a documentary film subject worthy of bringing to a wider audience.  I basically read the book and decided I wanted everyone else to read the book too, so I took it upon myself to dive deeper into the subject.”

Considering that recent studies show the average American reads at a 7th to 8th grade level and that people born after 1980 in the U.S. scored lower than 15 of the 22 participating countries in a recent international study; and overall U.S. adults aged 15-65 ranked near the bottom, how large of an impact does David feel Moby Dick holds among Millennials and the general public today, many whom have disturbingly refrained from reading books all together and are clueless about similar classics such as Gone With the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird?

“That’s a really interesting question. I am not sure how much of a direct impact Moby-Dick  has on a Millennial readership. I think one of the things about Moby-Dick is how it has this intimidating reputation that precedes it. Generally, if one has read it, that’s  because they were forced to read it in high school or college.  When I read the book as an undergraduate, I was not a fan. It’s such a dense text, and the narrative is loose, at best.  It was only when I was in my thirties that I was able to tap into the books emotional and philosophical core that it grew upon me. With that in mind, I think that Moby-Dick  is a book that rewards life experience. It is, after all, a book about a disenfranchised man who leaves his life on land to explore a new adventure at sea. It is very much a book about reinvention.”

As for his cinematic influences and what he feels distinguishes this new film and makes it a unique experience for audiences, David says he’s an avid fan of the participatory documentaries of Werner Herzog.  “His disarming presence allows for an inroad into subjects for an audience. I aim to emulate this somewhat in Call Us Ishmael. I have positioned myself in the film as a narrator/host to act as an audience surrogate.  This is a film very much for people who haven’t read Moby-Dick. The film’s main priority is to act as an antidote to Melville’s book’s intimidating reputation.”

Call Us Ishmael will screen on Saturday, Nov. 10th at Hoyt Public Library at 11:00 AM.  Shaerf will be present to screen the film and answer questions.

Me, the ‘Other’ • Closing Night Event

Sunday • November 11th • 5 PM • Court Theatre

There are those who are made to feel that they belong, and then there are “others.” This new documentary film about diversity features twelve students from three universities in Michigan’s Washtenaw County who share their stories of “otherness” and how they have dealt with prejudice.

A panel of kids associated with the film will be in attendance and because this will be the final screening of the 2018 Riverside Saginaw Film Festival, it will be brought to you free of charge with no admission,  thanks to the generosity of many donors. 

According to Director/Co-Producer Shidan Majidi, each of the subjects in Me, the ‘Other’  represent a diverse cast of characters experiencing prejudice on some level; and while they are from various backgrounds, in that place deep inside they are all essentially ‘one’. “My personal hope for this film is to expose that sacred place inside where beyond the clouded isms of race, religion, class, gender, age, sexual orientation, physical appearance— lies a place of light, warmth, hope, and pure love called the human soul.”

Co-producer Shahrzad Maghsoudloo Mirafzali explains the genesis of this film:  “20 years ago, I walked into the dental operatory with my staff all wearing their white lab coats. My patient only glanced at me and turned to my male nurse and said “hi.” Because I was a female, he assumed that I was the nurse and he the doctor. At that moment, I realized that all my life I had been the “other.” Whether it was because I was a female in a male dominated field, or because I had a long name that few could properly pronounce, or because I had lived in Iran, France, U.S, and China and enjoyed each country and their peoples, or because I am a Bahá’í. It all didn’t matter. I only smiled at him, knowing that I was going to do my best for him and his oral health. I felt especially blessed that I was the “other”—a world citizen who believes that “the betterment of the world can be accomplished through pure and goodly deeds, through commendable and seemly conduct.”

Review: Please tell me a bit about the genesis of this film and how you became involved with the production?   What  were some of the creative objectives that you were striving to achieve with this work?

Mirafzal: Last year - 2017 - marked two important Bicentennials: The first was the Bicentennial of Baha’u’llah - the prophet founder of the Baha’i Faith, whose teachings include the elimination of all prejudice; the progressive revelation and unity of purpose underlying all religions to guide mankind through its stages of maturation; and the equality of men and women. It was also the Bicentennial of the University of Michigan.  I am privileged to be a member of both. I wanted to use the arts to celebrate these occasions and was able to locate my friend - Shidan Majidi - who suggested a documentary - the rest is history. Our objectives were for it to be authentic and relevant to the time we are living.

Review: As the interviewing process began with the 12 students featured in the film, what was the biggest revelation that you discovered during the process of making this documentary?\

Mirafzal: I realized that, even in a progressive town as Ann Arbor that prides itself on its diversity, prejudice exists on many levels. Listening to these stories brought to light the effects of prejudice on these individuals and their families.  As cast and crew interacted, their struggles from being “the other” unified them.  ​ It also wonderful to see that the cast and the crew did not join to advance careers to become famous.  They sincerely had something they wanted to share with the world.

Review:  What was the most challenging component involved with pulling this film together?

Mirafzal: The time constraints.  We conceived of the idea in March 2017 and presented a rough cut on October 21 and 22 - the Bicentennial of Baha’u’llah - that’s only 7 months! We started with two members and assembled a cast and crew of over 200 individuals, not to mention fund raising to pay for expenses.  A majority of the volunteers, including the producers,  had no experience in film-making.

Review:  What  do you feel distinguishes this new film and makes it a unique experience for audiences?

Mirafzal:  We are in an increasingly divided world, along racial, economic, religious, gender, sexual orientation, etc.  This film shows the humanity of all people that are typically discriminated against.  It shows their struggles could be our struggles and their victories are our victories.  The events depicted in the news that we tend to often watch casually actually affect all people at a very deep and human level.  It is easy to forget the human impact of policies and attitudes on individuals and families.  This film gives a vision of hope that  we can begin to eliminate prejudice by getting to know one another better.

​We made this film with the sincere conviction, as Baha'is, that despite mankind going through worsening turmoil each day, its future is bright.  We believe that films such as this are not just statements, but are a small contribution to achieving that bright future.  We may not see that bright future in our lifetimes - but it will come!

The Big House

With the capacity of 107,601, the massive University  of Michigan football stadium dates back to 1879 and is the nation’s largest. In this documentary, shot against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential election, the camera crews investigate the labor needed to run the place — from the cooks to the cops to the cleaners.  Markus Nornes, Terri Sarris, and Kazuhira Soda are co-creators and producers of The Big House and relate the following about this ambitious documentary.

Review: Please tell me a bit about the genesis of this film.  What  were some of the creative objectives that you were striving to achieve with this work?

Sarris: The Big House grew from a class in the Film, Television, and Media Department (formerly Screen Arts and Cultures) at UM, Ann Arbor, focused on Direct Cinema documentary.  Our Department is committed to integrating  media studies and practice, and sometimes we get the opportunity to integrate them not just in the larger curriculum but in a class like ours.

It was Markus' idea to co-teach and his idea to make a film on The Big House as a class.  He asked me in February 2016 if I was interested in teaching a class together for fall semester of 2016, and so we joined forces as scholar and filmmaker.  He also knew that Kazuhiro Soda, one of the top filmmakers working in Direct Cinema or Observational style, was coming to campus for the entire 2016-17 year as The Center for Japanese Studies' Toyota Visiting Professor and knew he would be an amazing addition to the class.

So it was Markus who really brought the project and film into being. We began planning the project and syllabus in March 2016. Soda arrived on campus in August and the course started in early September.  All three of us were present for every session with the class of 13 students (which met 7 hours each week) and for the four game day, all-day shoots.  Students were also required to watch classics of direct cinema documentary in class and to write critically on the films. We discussed style, structure, ethics and also the specifics of production throughout the semester as we concurrently shot the film at four UM football games. 

The creative objectives of the film and project were both to make a compelling and well-made direct cinema style/observational film that would capture the spectacle and inner workings of The Big House on game Saturdays, and also to give students an unparalleled educational experience in the integration of direct cinema documentary history, theory, ethics, and practice. 

Review: How many people does the U of M Football Stadium employ, how much is their annual budget and how much revenue does it generate for the University?  Given that its stadium capacity is the size of the population of Saginaw County, what was the biggest revelation that you discovered during the process of making this documentary?

Markus: I think this is very hard to say. There are many different outfits on campus that supply workers. There are outside contractors for the food and other things. And there are volunteers of every kind. Student workers, you name it. I've never seen any tabulation of it all, probably because it would be close to impossible. But for me the biggest surprises were the vastness of the entire enterprise, and the openness of the athletic department in giving us access to every nook and cranny of the facility. I believe they truly supported this academic partnership that we offered to them.

Sarris: I can't add anything to Markus' answer here about number of people employed, but will say that my biggest revelation was about the sheer magnitude of the human endeavor that goes into putting on a Michigan football game at The Big House.  It's as if a small economy or city forms every Saturday (after much prior planning of course),  then dissolves quite quickly.  We followed many aspects: food preparation, trash clean up, and preparation on all levels. Another revelation for me was the many ways that people find to "monetize" the event:  from people selling water, to people collecting empty bottles, to the "Bongo-man" with a tip jar who makes up witty rhymes as he drums.  It truly is a transient, functioning economy. 

Review:  What was the most challenging component involved with pulling this film together?

Sarris: Without doubt it was the process of editing.  We had hundreds of hours of footage and figuring out what to keep and what to cut, as well as how to structure the footage was a Herculean task.  After each game, students were required to edit short segments of what they had shot and share these with the class for discussion.  They uploaded logs and descriptions of their footage.  In the last months of the semester, they were each required to write an annotated script, ordering the material and explaining their choices. From these, we voted on one to serve as the template for the film. 

Soda used this to create a rough structure which was originally over 3 hours long.  In the winter semester, Soda continued to work with three of the students to continue to edit the film and refine it into the 2 hour cut.  We held rough cut screenings for select audiences and Soda and the students continued to edit and refine.  We had long discussions about a controversial ending that depicted a small group of protestors at the stadium following the Presidential election.  Ultimately, we decided not to include this ending in the cut screening at Festivals.  

Review: Who are some of the influences that have inspired you or informed your work; and what do you feel distinguishes this new film and makes it a unique experience for audiences?

Sarris: We were inspired by direct cinema style films: from the films of the Robert Drew Associates, D. A. Pennebaker, the Maysles, Frederick Wiseman, and others.  As a class, we also watched the 2012 sensory ethnography film "Leviathan" to think about non-fiction film as an immersive experience.  Most significantly, Soda's 7 previous observational films and his approach to film production had the most profound effect on the film.  As an observational or direct cinema style film, our film does not tell the audience what to think.

The film is unique in that it is the combined view of 17 different filmmakers (Soda, Markus, me, 13 students, and our faculty colleague V. Prasad who joined us during shooting), integrated into one film.  Though many viewers may have seen games at The Big House, the film really covers "everything but the game," which will hopefully be an eye-opening experience for viewers, both fans and non-fans of Michigan football alike. 

Sponsored by Saginaw Bay Underwriters, the writer/director will attend and speak at the 2:00 PM  Sunday showing at Pit & Balcony.



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